Winning the Arnold Clark Cup was always going to be a tough ask, but England have defied the odds to do just that — and they just about deserved it. It may have been a tournament on home soil with fans turning out for England matches in much higher numbers than any other ties, but England still prevailed against sides who are arguably all slightly stronger than them on paper.
The opening-day draw with Olympic champions Canada was an impressive England display, led by the irrepressible Lauren Hemp, and earned thanks to a stellar finish by centre-back Millie Bright. Spain then offered a different challenge in what was a predictably slower, more deliberate affair. Spain are many people’s favourites to win the Euros in England this summer, but the Lionesses did well to hold them to a goalless draw while playing such an experimental line-up.
The crowning display was the match against Germany, however. England had lost all seven times they’d hosted the Germans before the match, but they deservedly saw off Germany with a brilliant counterattacking performance. It wasn’t perfect and there were defensive errors which the Lionesses were lucky went unpunished, yet Hemp’s ability to drive the ball, and England, forward was again pivotal to their offensive threat.Embed from Getty Images
England produced three steady yet positive performances — difficult for any team to achieve in six days, let alone against a trio of top-ten sides. Sarina Wiegman made it clear all week that winning the Arnold Clark Cup was certainly not the priority. Performing well and earning results was. If that brought the trophy with it, then so be it. And in the end it did.
There are still a number of selection dilemmas which Wiegman will have to iron out before the Euros on home soil. Left-back is yet to be sorted, as is the centre-back pairing — especially with Manchester City captain Steph Houghton still to return from injury. With England playing 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, one of Leah Williamson, Keira Walsh, Georgia Stanway and Ella Toone is likely to miss out on a starting berth. That is an attractive problem for the England manager to have, as it shows a certain depth of quality. All four are fantastic players with long international careers ahead of them.
And up front, even Ellen White’s place is not certain. She has always turned up for her national team, even when club goals have been scarce. Yet Bethany England is one of a number of viable alternatives. Wiegman must decide whether White’s record 49 England goals represent enough reason to keep faith with her. Alessia Russo is also making a case to start more often.Embed from Getty Images
It was a tournament England won despite not being at their best. But the low-scoring matches in this competition show none of the four competing sides were firing on all cylinders. That said, the likes of Millie Bright and Lauren Hemp enjoyed outstanding tournaments. Bright ended as joint-top-scorer in the tournament, tied with the best player in the world, Spain’s Alexia Putellas. Bright’s teammates looked so pleased for the defender as she clutched her trophy almost bashfully.
If Bright wasn’t England’s player of the tournament, then Manchester City’s Hemp was. Hemp will be world-class once she develops the ability to back-up beating her opponents out wide with similarly impressive quality when delivering the ball. And that is a theme throughout the team.
Ever since Wiegman’s first match in charge — an 8–0 win over North Macedonia at St Mary’s in September — it has been clear that the quality of crossing has not been what the Lionesses would like it to be. The Arnold Clark Cup was the first chance for England to truly test themselves against elite competition under their new manager. Winning the tournament will feel a welcome cause for optimism, but crossing accuracy remains an issue which Wiegman’s coaching staff and the players must address.Embed from Getty Images
Defensively, England were more convincing in their two draws than against Germany in the match that clinched them the inaugural title. Lucy Bronze is returning from a long-term injury and rustiness on her part showed that occasionally lax defending is not entrenched in this team. Wiegman and England will look to tighten up in that area too. The two goals they conceded in the tournament were magnificent goals that the Lionesses could have done little to prevent. Sometimes that just happens at this level.
Wiegman spoke to EnglandFootball.org after her side secured the trophy by beating Germany. Summing up the tournament as a whole, she said: “We approached the games with our style of play and our principles. I actually like a lot from our game because I think we’ve played well. We got lots of information about ourselves, about individuals, and about where we are in our style of play.”
There’s lots to ponder for England now as they reassess a trophy-winning international break capped off by Fran Kirby’s excellent run and goal to seal it. They must keep on this steady trajectory of improvement and fine-tuning to put themselves in contention this summer. In the meantime, this is about as good an outcome as England could have hoped for at this stage.